Classical South Asia

The city of Varanasi lies on the banks of the Ganges River in northern India and is considered a holy city
by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains; photo credit cleverboy68

Civilization first emerged in South Asia in the Indus River valley, now associated with the long-gone cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. As in other parts of the world, the first emergence of cities (civilization) was connected to a river (the idea of riverine society). In this case it was the Indus, and it certainly appears that the farming of the region was in harmony with the semi-annual flooding of the river (much like the annual floods of the Nile River that made the Nile River valley fertile). The Harappan civilization flourished from about 2800 to 1700 BCE with elaborate cities, productive farming (after all, without that you cannot have cities), long distance trade to Mesopotamia, class structure, cemeteries, writing system, etc. In other words, Harappa was a typical bronze age, large-scale society. Scholars are still unsure of the reasons for the decline that happened by 1500 BCE, but it looks like some climactic causes were involved. (Seems to me similar to the decline and then disappearance of Mycenaean Greece, which also suffered from climactic changes.) The Harappan cities were slowly abandoned.

After the destruction (maybe better word would be "dissolution") of Harappan civilization, organized society moved eastward into the fertile Ganges River plain--again the prominent importance of a river--where a series of kingdoms rose and fell over time. This migration is often connected to the appearance/emergence of the Aryans, and it is usually called the Vedic period. The word "Aryan" comes from the Rg Veda, the very earliest religious hymns of Hinduism, but there have been vivid scholarly disputes over the past century about the exact identity and nature of the Aryans. (See a rather similar controversy connected with the emergence of an organized political state in early Rus and the identity of Rurik and the Varangians.)

Were the Aryans from Central Asia? Were they warriors who conquered indigenous Indian peoples? Were they instead people from India itself? They did bring horses, the wheel, iron, and Sanskrit (an Indo-European language). Was there a sharp break with Indus Valley Civilization? The limited sources that we have for information about the Aryans are the Vedas, but these were written down much later, and remember that they are only religious hymns (and not historical records). So it is dangerous to try and get too much information out of them.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the term "Aryan" took on a racial connotation; the idea that they were aliens from outside of India and physically different with a lighter skin--note that there was a lot of searching for racial explanations by scholars in nineteenth century Europe--but how much of that is true? In the Vedas "Aryan" means simply a person of high status; there are no racial connotations; and there is no clear mention of the origins of the Aryans. The appearance of the Aryans is often also connected with the development of a caste structure of society; yet, there were already extent in the Vedas notions of caste before mention of the Aryans. (See paragraph 90 of book 10 in the Rig Veda, the Purusha creation myth, for an early description of the varnas.)

In reality, caste does not require conquest to create a structured, social structure; it can develop slowly over time. Racial or occupational groups can end up as castes; religious sects can become castes; and yes, a conquered tribe can end up as a caste. In India, by tradition, there were/are four caste groupings (varnas): brahmans or priests (notice how religious figures always put themselves at the top of any hierarchy), kshatriyas or warriors, vaishyas or traders and shudras or workers (basically the 90% of society). These are further divided into hereditary sub-groups called jatis with each jati having a specific dharma, or duty, to fulfill. At the same time that this caste structure emerged, society also became very patriarchal and women lost more rights and responsibilities.

But how different is the caste structure that evolved in India? It is a system of social stratification rooted in an occupational division of labor and is not really different than that which existed in the civilizations of Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. And what about the European medieval idea (feudalism) of dividing society into those who pray (again at the top of the hierarchy), those who fight, and those who work. And if you really want to get technical, there are not a whole lot of societies that have ever existed that had rampant fluidity between socioeconomic classes--that kind of an idea is a relatively recent idea and phenomenon.

Harold Gould has called the Indian caste system "the sacralization of a social order" because it inextricably tied the social structure to Hinduism. Again according to Gould, "Hinduism occupationalized the religious order and sacralized the occupational order," and this was a process that evolved a moral-religio-philosophy from Indus River civilization onwards for over a thousand years.

Yes, caste still exists today, and there remains a lot of controversy about it. Even though both Buddha and Mahavira preached against it years ago, caste continues. Gandhi himself never came to a firm conviction about what to do (or not do) about it.

With the end of the Aryan period, there were no major large political structures existent in India. India was invaded by the Persians in the sixth century BCE and then again (temporarily) by Alexander the Great in 326 BCE. It is roughly within this period, before the formation of the Mauryan Empire, that two new religious outlooks emerged on the sub-continent.

Vardhamāna (aka the Mahavira, 599-527 or 549-477 BCE) is connected with Jainism. He was born into a princely family and left as a young adult to meditate and give up worldly possessions (sound familiar?). Jainism not only denied the existence of a supreme deity, the followers also followed an ascetic lifestyle and were rigorously non-violent (ahimsa) towards all living beings. The point was to liberate oneself and through self-effort move the soul towards divine consciousness and liberation.

This was also the period when Buddhism emerged. Interesting that both these alternatives to Hinduism emerged at the same time; note the similarities in the message (implicitly a critique of Hinduism).

In the fourth century BCE, Chandragupta Maurya (322?-298 BCE) founded the Mauryan dynasty, the first Indian, large-scale empire. The empire began in the Ganges River basin and then expanded to embrace much of the sub-continent with its capital at Pataliputra (Patna) on the lower Ganges. Legend has it that Chandragupta embraced Jainism near end of life.

The high point of the Mauryan Empire was the rule of Asoka (aka Ashoka, 268-232) BCE, the grandson of Chandragupta. He converted to Buddhism, which must have been traumatic for the Hindu priesthood, considering that the early rulers of the empire had converted to Jainism and then Buddhism.

During his long reign, Ashoka built temple complexes, roads and hospitals, banned animal sacrifice, opened trade routes to the West and sent missionaries to spread Buddhism. In time, Ashoka controlled most of South Asia except for a small area in the far south. His edicts, carved on rocks and pillars throughout the region--many of which still survive--are the chief source of information about his reign.

After Asoka's death, the Mauryan empire began to breakup. Five centuries of political disunity ensued, but there were flourishing regional kingdoms throughout this period. There also remained overseas trade connections. It was during this period that both Buddhism and Jainism declined in influence, and Hinduism reasserted its control.

Now remember, that by, say 200 CE, Hinduism, had already been around a pretty long time and had evolved as a result of both internal and external factors, but it was at this time that the conceptualization and meanings of the Hindu deities stabilized. In the Hindu world, and there are a lot of dimensions and varieties to the Hindu world, life is a transitory experience, and truth lies not in life itself but beyond life. One must peel away the facade of life to attain atman and reality.

From Wikipedia: "Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism among others; and its concept of God is complex and depends upon each individual and the tradition and philosophy followed. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an over generalization."

I find this interesting also: "The Trimurti is a concept in Hinduism "in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahmā the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Śhiva the destroyer or transformer." These three deities have been called "the Hindu triad" or the "Great Trinity", often addressed as "Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara."

Often the Gupta period is considered to have been the period of Classical India most closely equivalent to Classical Rome or Classical China. The Gupta Empire lasted from about 320 to 550 CE , starting with the reign of Chandra Gupta 1 (320-335 CE), who initiated the empire which stretched across northern India. This was a high point of cultural achievement (chess) and prosperity. Wikipedia notes "The peace and prosperity created under leadership of Guptas enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. This period is called the Golden Age of India and was marked by extensive inventions and discoveries in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectic, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion and philosophy that crystallized the elements of what is generally known as Hindu culture."

This was also a time of some of the great Indian literature taking its final formulations, such as the Puranas, but more specifically the Mahabharata which is an epic tale of a war that occurred maybe about 1000 BCE. While parts of the epic date to the fifth century BCE (and parts might even be older), it is believed that the text reached its final form in the early Gupta period. Besides being a tale of war, the Mahabharata also contains philosophical and religious material.

The most important part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, the song of god, (hard to date exactly), which takes place before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna, the Pandava prince, asks his charioteer, Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, for advice. The Gita, which is clearly not an integral part of the Mahabharata, is an explanation of the nature of the soul, the meaning of god, reality, righteous behavior, self-mastery, etc. Gandhi found the Gita to be of paramount inspiration to him in his liberation work.

Thought that I would add this here. One of the hardest things that you have to deal with when you read about world history is not necessarily the span of time involved, nor is it the large geographic scale; it is the languages and the unfamiliar personal names (and pronunciations) that you encounter.

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Some recommended online lectures and websites:


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